The meaning of games

Do you want to play games like comics, or like novels?


A few weeks ago I started building a massive-scale game that I’ve been planning for a long time. It’s an ambitious project that I can’t wait to release — but I’m unsure what non-game developers would think of my goals. There seems to be a stigma around people with a life-long love of video games. Perhaps people imagine a maturity-stunted, ambition-free slacker playing mind-numbingly predictable games in most of their free time. I’m afraid video games, as an industry, may have earned itself a poor reputation along these lines, and I want to offer another perspective on what good games can mean.


A way of expressing ideas

Let’s look at games as a way of expressing an idea; I want games to be a category alongside movies, books, or songs.

Different categories have earned their own set of expectations. If I know someone loves to read books, I think of them as intelligent and willing to spend time alone. If I know someone loves art films, I think they have an artistic sense that they cultivate; if they love movies featuring explosions, I think of them as enjoying easy entertainment.

Comic books are an interesting case. Their stories are often in the superhero genre. Something horrible happens to some poor sap. They realize they have a way to change the world. And then, against great odds, they do change the world on a massive scale.

The superhero genre is so tightly tied to comic books that they’re almost synonymous. This is interesting because there’s nothing about comic books that requires their stories to be about superheroes.

Let’s move over to games. This is the newest category of expression we’re looking at. It, too, tends to be tied to a small number of genres such as first-person shooters or role-playing games. However, I think games have more in common with movies than comic books. Many well-known games are built or published with large budgets with predictable style and narrative elements. Yet there’s an energetic, indie-driven subcategory where originality and creativity rule. I think of myself as part of this burgeoning movement.

But there’s more to the story.

Broken dreams

The music industry is full of talented, hopeful souls — and broken dreams. Making money with games has a few things in common with making music. Great music is made for its own sake, out of love for what is being made. Music and games are both popular and easy to daydream about. Games form an unusual niche in software development — a niche with such great supply of passionate developers that it can afford to treat them poorly.

Game studios generally don’t care about sustainability because so many game creations are one-hit wonders. Turnover is high and fresh blood is cheap. Like recording studios, there’s no balance of power between the money and the end-workers.

When I think of the negative perceptions of game-lovers, I think about the tired genres of comics, the originality-sapped movie industry, or the overworked, poorly-managed world of big-publisher game studios.

What’s more important than these stereotypes, though, is the fact that games can be meaningful. Graphic novels can feature rich, dynamic characters; movies can burst with imagination; and music, even sung by starving string-pluckers, can reach the hidden corners of your heart.

All of this is a prelude to books — a form of expression that shines through its imperfections.


Books

Writing a book is neither easy nor likely to be profitable. If it’s any good, it takes a singularity of vision together with creativity, passion, and sustained discipline.

Books are not always good. Quite the opposite, in fact. If you chose a book at random at your local library, you’d probably be bored or disappointed. Like any expression of ideas, few are truly great.

Despite these shortcomings, I love the analogy that can be drawn between games and books. In fact, to me, this connection is what captures the meaning of games.

Books, more than movies, have a culture of defying genres. Unlike movies, I don’t think there is a cohort of lexical executive producers pulling strings to pay for committee-designed, franchise-fueled book factories. Rather, the world of novel-writing has plenty of room and appreciation for creators who stray far from the beaten path.

It is the consequence of this culture of freedom that matters. Books speak to people. Reading a good book isn’t time wasted. A good book brings to life a shared human experience. It brings to our life a story that finds us, and in some small way, that moves forward our perception of the world. What is life beyond a stream of stories given meaning by how they are shared with those around us?

In this way, I see a largely untapped potential for games as expressions of ideas. Like books, I believe the game industry itself can foster a culture of innovation. The growth of indie games could be the beginning of such a change.


A new hope

The biggest difference between today’s gaming culture and the future I hope to see is in the perception of what games mean.

In today’s culture, when a designer sits down with a new game in the twinkle of her eye, she asks herself questions like:

  • What’s the market for my game?
  • How can I make the short-term gameplay interesting?
  • How can I make the long-term goal worthwhile?

Those are important questions. But they don’t have to come first. These questions don’t lend themselves to a perspective of exuberant freedom. These aren’t the questions writers of great books start with.

I propose that makers of games can uplift their expectations and the very art of game-making itself. Perhaps we can think of ourselves as artists, conveyers of experiences profound. Perhaps we can build games by asking ourselves first, and last — as I imagine authors of great books did, consciously or not —

What can I give to the world?